NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Wins or losses aside, Merrimack head coach Chris Serino has always been satisfied with his club’s effort this season … until Tuesday night, that is.
A seemingly distracted band of Warriors watched as No. 4 Maine chipped away at all that the hosts reaped with their season-high, three-game winning streak during a 5-2 loss in front of 1,858 at Lawler Arena.
Led by burly power forward Dustin Penner’s goal and two assists, the Black Bears monopolized the area in front of Merrimack freshman goalie Jim Healey practically the entire night, building a cozy four-goal lead early in the third period, much to Serino’s chagrin.
“I’ve said before that most nights we play with a great effort,” Serino said, “but tonight we didn’t. We played absolutely awful. We got outworked in every area of the game.”
After its disappointing two-game flop last week at the Everblades Classic in Florida, Maine (14-4-1, 7-2-1 HEA) has now won two straight and swept the season series from the Warriors, moving into sole possession of first place in Hockey East, a half game in front of Boston College. Merrimack (7-11-3, 2-7-3) visits the No. 2 Eagles on Friday.
“We moved the puck real well to get a couple of rebound goals and a couple of others in tight,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead. “I thought we stomped on the net pretty well and protect our net at the same time.”
Sophomore Frank Doyle (17 saves) earned his ninth win in net, surrendering only one goal to Warriors defenseman Bryan Schmidt before giving way to backup Ray Jean for the final 4:28.
Merrimack captain Marco Rosa scored his team-leading 10th goal against Jean with just 1:48 to play.
“If you watched the puck go into to our end, they came in in waves,” Serino said. “They came at us hard. If you watched us going into their end, it was looking around to see who was going to go instead of just going after it. You can’t win games like that.”
Surprisingly poor play directly in front of Healey led to an early two-goal deficit before Schmidt converted for his fifth power-play goal of the season.
Following a faceoff to the right of Healey, Maine defenseman Jeff Mushaluk rang a blistering slap shot off the right post. The rebound ricocheted directly to Penner, who had a wide open net to shoot at only to watch Warriors center Steve Crusco slide across the crease behind Healey to make an unexpected stop with his chest.
However, Merrimack’s good fortune ended there as Black Bears captain Todd Jackson slammed in the second rebound for his team-best 10th goal — his fourth against the Warriors this season — at 7:02.
Maine doubled its lead 4:25 later when freshman Michel Leveille, despite being among the club leaders with 16 assists, scored his first career goal. Standing alone in front of Healey, Leveille initially fanned on a crossing pass from Brent Shepheard, but second effort allowed the talented center to slide the puck past the Merrimack netminder for his first goal in 19 starts.
Gathering his own rebound, Schmidt guided a wrist shot through traffic from 25 feet out with 3:32 left in the period again make it a one-goal game.
The final minute of the first period proved costly to the Warriors when Maine came to town last month for a partially snowed-out series. The Black Bears scored twice in the closing seconds of the opening period on their way to an eventual 3-1 win.
This time around, Merrimack somehow survived more sloppy play in its own zone during the last 60 seconds of the first only to have the Black Bears regain their two-goal lead within the opening 18 seconds of the second period.
Sophomore Derek Damon’s seemingly harmless shot from along the left boards slipped between Healey’s pads to make it 3-1 to deflate the hopeful Warriors.
Merrimack had a perfect opportunity to take hold of the momentum late in the period as back-to-back penalties to Black Bears Jon Jankus and Damon gave the Warriors a two-man advantage for 1:33. But despite decent puck movement, the hosts managed only three shots on Doyle before Maine took advantage just 28 seconds after killing off the second penalty.
Gaining control of the puck as soon as Damon exited the box, Maine again began to buzz Healey, resulting in Penner banging in a nifty pass from behind the net from Damon.
“That was definitely the key moment of the game,” Whitehead said. “The game could have been shifted to them on the 5-on-3, but Dustin scored on a real great shift when we just hemmed them in.”
The Black Bears turned it into a rout on Josh Soares’ second goal, again from directly in front of Healey, just 2:03 into the third period.
“As we got down in the game, we became a little undisciplined, taking stupid penalties,” said Serino, whose club killed off seven shorthanded situations, including 2:41 of a 5-on-3 situation. “That was disappointing because we haven’t done that in a while. So we’ll make some [lineup] changes” before the Boston College game.